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Mastering Urdu and Nastaliq: A Comprehensive Guide

Ask most people what they think about Urdu, and they’ll tell you it’s a beautiful language – one of poetry, politeness, and history. Ask them how to study it, and they might shrug and point you to a poetry reading or TV show. If you’re lucky, they’ll have some advice for practicing the Urdu script Nastaliq.

Learning a language through poetry, however, is far easier said than done. Fortunately, there are many more Urdu language-learning resources than most people realize. Keep reading as we explore the best courses, apps, podcasts, movies, and textbooks for learning Urdu.

Plus, we’ll explore how difficult it is, the differences that set it apart from Hindi, and how to create your own self-study plan.

A Brief Introduction to the Urdu Language

Urdu is often thought of as the language of Pakistan and Muslim South Asia. Yet this is overly simplistic.

While Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, it’s also spoken in parts of northern India – where it is one of the 22 official languages – as well as in Bangladesh, Nepal, and many other countries in the region. You’ll overhear it being used in the US, the UAE, and the UK (it is England and Wales’ fourth most-spoken language), as well as in other diaspora communities, too.

According to Ethnologue, there are 171 million Urdu speakers in the world. The region’s polyglotism may have led to this number being underestimated.

Meanwhile, there are 74 languages spoken in Pakistan, and Urdu isn’t even the most common. That honor belongs to Punjabi.

Another area of misconception is Urdu’s relationship with Hindi. Some say that they’re the same language. Others strongly disagree. Let’s look at how close they really are.

Urdu vs Hindi: A Tale of Two Sisters

Urdu and Hindi are sister languages, which means that they are descended from the same historical language. They have a striking amount in common, with many people considering them to be mutually intelligible in spoken conversation.

Urdu first appeared in the 1100s and 1200s in and around Delhi. Its emergence has been tied with increasing Islamic and Middle Eastern influence in the region, with the 350-year-long Delhi Sultanate starting in 1206.

Because of this, Urdu has Arabic, Persian, and Turkish influences. Its vocabulary, however, owes more to Sanskrit than to Middle Eastern languages.

Grammatically and phonetically, Urdu is so similar to Hindi that the two languages are often described as being one and the same. There are some differences, especially in the prefixes and suffixes, yet these don’t generally hinder aural comprehension.

When it comes to reading and writing, however, the two languages are visibly different. Urdu uses an adapted Arabo-Persian script called Nastaliq. This is a right-to-left script written with cursive.

Meanwhile, Hindi is written in Devanagari, a Sanskrit script.

According to the National Council For Promotion Of Urdu Language in India, the perceived differences between Hindi and Urdu are relatively modern. The council argues that the distinction we have today owes a lot to the British colonization of India. The British-led Partition of India into two countries – Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan – only exacerbated this.

So, how different are the two languages, really?

It’s easy to under- or overstate the differences between Urdu and Hindi. On the one hand, Urdu is not just Hindi with an Arabic script: there are distinct linguistic differences, however slight they may be. On the other hand, they are mutually intelligible and were often considered the same language just a couple of hundred years ago.

Regardless of Urdu’s relationship with Hindi, one thing is clear: it’s not solely the language of Pakistan’s Muslim community.

Urdu can boast of a rich literary, linguistic and historical heritage across the region. It’s been used by Sikh and Hindi writers as well as Muslim ones. You’ll see it written on the walls of the Harmandir Sahib, and it was spoken by Emperor Shah Jahan, the man behind the creation of the Taj Mahal.

It is a language of both India and Pakistan and has continuing relevance to the millions of people who speak it in South Asia, the Middle East, and around the globe.

The Harmandir Sahib at night.

How Difficult Is Urdu?

According to the US Foreign Services Institute (FSI), Urdu is “hard” (although not as hard as Arabic or Chinese, and no harder than Hindi). They believe that it takes an average of 44 weeks of intensive study or 1,100 classroom hours to achieve working proficiency. If you’re used to the CEFR’s levels, this has been equated to both B2 and C1.

Yet don’t let the FSI’s analysis put you off learning Urdu.

First of all, no language is truly easy. Even ones like Spanish and German, which have a lot in common with English, take hard work and a significant amount of time to master.

And if you’re going to put all that effort into learning a language, shouldn’t it be a language that you’re passionate about rather than the one that’s “least difficult?” A language that you find beautiful, useful, or culturally significant in some way?

The truth is, the less interesting you find speaking and studying a language, the more challenging it’s going to seem. If you’re struggling with Urdu grammar or pronunciation, you’re certainly not alone. But if you find yourself getting demotivated, try searching for a different study method or a more enjoyable way to use Urdu before writing it off as “impossible.”

Learning a language can be exasperating, mind-boggling, and just plain old confusing. Sometimes, you wonder if you’ll ever pronounce a phoneme right. But it can also be incredibly satisfying, not to mention fun – especially once you start to have deep conversations or discover your favorite Urdu-language TV series and authors.

So, no, Urdu isn’t the world’s easiest language (although you’ll have a large head start if you already speak Hindi). However, with a little bit of hard work, you’ll soon find yourself not only speaking it but enjoying doing so.

How to Learn Urdu

If you Google “how to learn a language,” you’ll find hundreds of language-learning hacks and schedules – but you’ll see the quickest progress if you create your own study plan.

After all, nobody else has your personality, learning style, interests, and goals.

It’s worth taking the time to grab a pen and paper and answer these questions:

  • What do I want to be able to do in Urdu?
  • How well do I want to be able to do this?
  • How much time do I have to study?
  • Which study methods do I find effective?

Bear in mind that you’ll probably want to update the answers to these periodically. In fact, you might not even be able to answer the last question right now.

But once you’ve got some answers, you’ll find it easier to create your study plan. For example, if your goal is to speak to family members in Urdu, you’ll want to focus heavily on your speaking, listening, and pronunciation. You might also have an idea of the type of vocabulary you’ll need, depending on what you normally talk about with your family. And you’ll likely want to achieve a fairly high level of proficiency.

Alternatively, if you want to read and listen to Urdu ghazals, you should focus mostly on your reading and listening. And if you’re planning a three-week trip through Pakistan, speaking, listening, and reading will all come in handy – but you probably won’t be worried about a few grammatical errors here and there.

Next, think about how long and often your study sessions will be. It’s better to study a little most days than to have a weekly Urdu-learning marathon.

At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to schedule an hour each day if that’s going to exhaust you. Be realistic about how much time you have and don’t push yourself so hard that you end up resenting Urdu. Give yourself days off when you need them.

After all, you want to enjoy learning Urdu – not feel punished by it.

Now that you’ve got your study sessions penciled into your diary, it’s time to work out what exactly to do in those sessions. Take a trial-and-error approach: there are numerous ways to learn a language, and someone else’s favorite method could seem mind-numbingly boring to you.

We’ll explore a huge number of Urdu language courses, podcasts, apps, and more in this article. However, you might also like to:

  • Keep a journal to work on your vocabulary, grammar, and written fluency
  • Record yourself speaking in Urdu and listen back
  • Compare your recordings to a native speaker’s recordings (e.g. from an audiobook or YouTube video) so you can spot areas to improve your pronunciation
  • Join Urdu-language Facebook groups and forums
  • Follow Urdu-speaking influencers and Urdu-language hashtags
  • Find local groups and practice partners
  • Create your own pen-and-paper flashcards (although we’ve listed a few flashcard apps below!)
  • Have a go at writing Urdu poetry
  • Write a letter to the editor of an Urdu-language newspaper – it’s old-fashioned, but it’s still an opportunity to practice!

No matter what study methods you choose, be patient. Learning Urdu (or any other language!) takes time, effort, and resilience. There will be moments when you get frustrated by your vocabulary or feel like your listening was better yesterday. However, as long as you are consistently studying, you will get there.

Focus on your achievements. If you feel demotivated, look back at something you wrote or read a few months ago to see just how far you’ve come. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve improved.

After all, it’s hard to notice the progress on a day-to-day basis – yet sooner or later, you’ll find yourself confidently using Urdu and getting compliments on your accent.

Resources for Learning Urdu

Whether it’s courses, podcasts, apps or poetry readers you’re looking for, we’ve found plenty for you to pick from.

Learning the Urdu Script

The sleekly designed Aamozish will teach you the Urdu script and pronunciation in a free online course. Each unit is bite-sized, while the quizzes will check exactly how much you remember.

Ukindia is a step-by-step breakdown of how to add vowel marks, distinguish between letters written at the start and end of words, and more. While the presentation is dated (there’s even the option of purchasing lessons on floppy disk), the explanations are extremely beginner friendly.

This guide from the National Council of Urdu Language has some useful exercises and example words, although you’ll have to use Flash for some of them to work.

You’ll also find a breakdown here, courtesy of Professor Frances Pritchett at the University of Columbia. It could be overwhelming if you’re completely new to the script, but it’s a great reference point for once you’ve got some familiarity. There are also grammar guides.

Hugo Coolens has uploaded detailed, print-friendly guides to the Urdu script, along with some practice activities.

Of course, sometimes there’s nothing better than copying how someone else writes. Try watching this YouTube video to see what direction your strokes should go in and where exactly the placement is.

Feeling like you’re being thrown into the deep end? The BBC’s guide to Urdu will give you a useful English-language, non-academic overview.

You might like to pair these guides with this detailed, technical pronunciation guide. It won’t be much help, however, if you’re completely new to linguistics.

Online Urdu Classes and Language Exchanges

Online Classes

A teacher can help you practice speaking and listening, structure your learning, and provide more detailed grammatical explanations. Fortunately, you don’t have to be in Pakistan or India to take Urdu classes.

With italki, you can try Urdu classes with numerous teachers, all with their own learning style. Plus, the italki mobile app will let you take part in forum discussions and upload writing samples and audio recordings for community feedback. (Although we’d like it even more if you could upload writing samples from the website as well.)

If italki’s not to your liking, try Preply. It also has a large range of teachers to choose from, although you have to buy at least five classes at a time with a specific teacher (after the trial lesson). We were also put off by how they pay their teachers.

You could also try Verbling. It has a much smaller selection of teachers, but we prefer its payment processing options to that of both italki and Preply.

Community Forums

Not interested in one-to-one classes, but would like someone to answer a question? Try HiNative, a Q&A platform for language learners. If you post your question there, hopefully someone from the community will be able to help you out. Bear in mind that, as a community-based app, you’re not guaranteed a response – but then again, the basic features are free. Here’s what we thought of it.

If you don’t get any answers on HiNative, Reddit has an active Urdu subreddit.

Language Exchanges

For improving your fluency, there’s nothing like using the language in everyday conversations. Enter the language exchange apps, with three of the biggest ones being HelloTalk, Speaky, and Tandem. We’ve previously reviewed all three of them: HelloTalk, Speaky, Tandem.

The good thing about language exchanges is how much easier they make it to meet Urdu speakers – no matter where in the world you are. On the other hand, you might struggle to find someone as interested in an in-depth conversation as you are. And, given that it’s an exchange, you should also be prepared to speak in other languages.

Online and App-Based Urdu Language Courses

You won’t find Urdu on Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, but there are some alternatives worth checking out.

Darvazah was designed to be the equivalent of a year’s worth of free Urdu-language university-level tuition. The videos are actually from a Hindi-language course, however. It still offers value, but bear in mind that some of the vocabulary might not be a native Urdu speaker’s first choice.

Mango Languages focuses on getting you speaking, listening to, and building your own Urdu sentences. We think it’s a good choice for beginner and lower-intermediate learners. Plus, if you’re struggling with your pronunciation, you’ll be able to record yourself and then play that over a native speaker’s recording. This can help you spot when you’re not quite saying those vowels right.

Pimsleur is also concentrated on speaking and listening practice. We like how it gets you talking straight away, but it can be less fun than other courses.

With UrduPod101, you’ll get access to Urdu audio and video courses. In our experience, it has an impressive range of material, but there’s no structured syllabus so you’ll probably want to use it alongside a textbook or other course.

You’ll also find several Urdu courses on Udemy. While they’re generally fairly affordable, the quality and course length can vary immensely. We recommend reading through the course-specific reviews before purchasing.

If you’re looking for a Duolingo-style phone app, you’ve got several options. Ling is a gamified app with options for writing and speaking as well as learning vocabulary. We found it to be light on grammar explanations and best for beginners.

Memrise is another popular option. While there are no official Memrise Urdu courses, there are plenty of community-made ones on everything from the alphabet and directions to poetry. It’s worth trying a few out, since the quality can vary a lot. You can find out more about Memrise here.

You could also try Mondly. We didn’t find it to be very interesting, even with the gamification, and were unconvinced by the structure of the syllabus. However, you can use it to learn Urdu from Hindi, Arabic, and many more languages.

Language Courses to Avoid

Despite Urdu courses being hard to come by, we wouldn’t waste our time or money on these ones.

Instant Immersion promotes itself as a Rosetta Stone competitor. Generally, though, their courses lack structure and overload you with information. We think there are better options available.

17 Minute Languages sounds promising, but when we tried it, we came across lots of mistakes, glitches, and bad translations. There’s no point learning phrases if they’re incorrect.

Transparent Language bills itself as a course, but we don’t think you’ll be able to make your own sentences or have a conversation after finishing it. We also found it dull and monotonous.

As for Cudoo, it has the dubious honor of being our worst-reviewed course ever. In our experience, not only is it boring and the syllabus incredibly sparse, but there are also no explanations. And frankly, we just don’t think you would be able to communicate effectively after taking this course.

Urdu Vocabulary Builders and Word Games

There are few things more frustrating than having an opinion about what everyone’s talking about but not knowing the right words to express it. Improving your vocabulary will help you talk more precisely and about a wider range of topics. Fortunately, apps and websites can help you to discover and memorize new words.

The word lists and games on Digital Dialects will get beginner Urdu learners memorizing colors, numbers, food, and calendar-based vocabulary. You can choose whether it tests you on recognition of the written script or an audio recording.

Urdujini has a fun hangman game that will test your word recall and spelling. You can select the category if you want to focus on a specific topic.

If you’re just preparing for a trip and don’t actually want to learn Urdu, you might like uTalk. This phrasebook memorization app will help you learn the key phrases for everything from shopping and food to the summer Olympics and maintaining military peace. Some of the phrases aren’t exactly how a native speaker would speak, but in our experience, you’ll still be understood – and you get to hear yourself speaking Urdu.

Learn Urdu Quickly (only available on Android) is a similar option. It has a more limited selection of phrases, and the practice drills are less varied. However, we like that you can learn Urdu phrases from a range of common languages across India, Europe, and East Asia, including Hindi, Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, and Telugu.

You might come across the Simply Learn Urdu app. However, you have to pay to access a lot of the word lists, and it’s from the same company that developed Ling, the app-based course we mentioned in the last section. Since Ling will also help you practice speaking, we would be tempted to choose that over Simply Learn Urdu.

With Lingohut, you’ll get access to word and phrase lists on 125 different topics. It’s free and contains audio recordings but can sometimes be let down by its one-size-fits-all-languages approach.

You’ll also find basic word and phrase lists on learn101.org, My Languages, and 50 Languages. While none of them leave us overly impressed, they can be an easy way to find new vocabulary.

Even with all these options, you might find your best option is to make your own flashcard decks or borrow one from another Urdu-learner. While there’s always the pen-and-paper option, we recommend trying an app like Anki so you can practice wherever you are. It adapts to how difficult you find specific words, and you can browse shared decks here (there are several Urdu ones to choose from).

And, of course, the more you read, write, and listen to Urdu, the more words you’ll come across and the quicker you’ll remember them.

Urdu Textbooks

While courses, apps, and online classes can go a long way to learning Urdu and improving your conversational fluency, a textbook can give your studies structure and a sound grammatical basis.

Beginning Urdu: A Complete Course is an expensive but highly praised university-level textbook that’s designed to take you from complete beginner to high-intermediate. Make sure it comes with the CD before buying it.

Let’s Study Urdu: An Introductory Course (Yale Language)has clear and easy-to-follow explanations. You’ll need to have either learned the Urdu script beforehand or also purchased Let’s Study Urdu: An Introduction to the Script (Yale Language).

Teach Yourself Complete Urdu is good for beginners. It’s focused on travel and tells the story of a Pakistani family going on holiday to Delhi. Although it includes a detailed breakdown of the script (and some brief exercises), you don’t need to have mastered it in order to use the textbook: all Urdu vocabulary and phrases are written both in the Nastaliq script and Roman letters.

Learn Urdu in 30 Days by R. S. Ganathe is a more affordable option. Some learners find it too superficial to give you a solid foundation in the language, however.

Urdu-Language Podcasts

More of an audio learner? Not keen on textbooks? Try the Urdu Seekhiye podcast, in which Shireen, Travis, Sara and other guests break down some of the basics of Urdu. Each episode is fairly short, with most of them between 15 and 30 minutes long.

Alternatively, in Bachpan Ki Kahaniyan, Mahwash narrates Urdu stories. It’s designed for children but is an accessible way for upper-beginner and lower-intermediate students to practice their listening.

Doorbean is another podcast that’s designed for children but also has value for adult Urdu learners. The hosts speak to children about current affairs, sports, culture, science and more. All episodes are coffee-break sized, with very few of them exceeding eight minutes.

If you like Bachpan Ki Kahaniyan but want something designed for adults, try Urdu Adab. It’s intended for people with limited Urdu proficiency. The episodes range from roughly 15 to 30 minutes in length and focus on short stories and poetry.

Fluent in Urdu? SBS Urdu is designed for Urdu speakers in Australia and is updated on a daily basis. Or, you can listen to Urdu-language lectures on the Qur’an by Dr. Israr Ahmad here.

Practice Urdu on YouTube

We’ve already mentioned UrduPod101 under the language course section. They also have a YouTube channel with hundreds of videos.

Urdu Academy Jakarta is rarely updated but has plenty of beginner Urdu videos on both grammar and basic vocabulary.

freeTaleem has some Urdu grammar and writing series. Advanced Urdu learners might also like his physics and programming tutorials.

This 44-episode playlist from Education Pyramid UAE is designed for Urdu beginners.

Learn Urdu Through English has a lot of videos; unfortunately, many of them are based on memorizing Urdu sentences rather than learning how the language functions.

Once you’ve got a grip of the basics, Urdu Kids can be an easy transition into watching Urdu-language videos.

Urdu Books and Poetry

Urdu is a language of poetry. Don’t worry, though: there’s also plenty of prose for you to get stuck into.

The revolutionary and anti-Imperialist Faiz Ahmed Faiz is one of the most famous 20th-century Urdu poets and was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Or, if you’re looking for ghazals, try Mizra Ghalib.

You can also read poetry on rehkta (change the language from Urdu to English to read a Romanized version of the poems) or listen to readings on YouTube – just search for mushaira or مشاعرہ. And if you have any questions about the poems, or want to write and share your own, check out the Urdu poetry subreddit on Reddit.

Urdu: Readings in Literary Urdu Prose will help intermediate Urdu learners ease into reading Urdu. The stories get progressively more challenging.

Alternatively, if you don’t mind reading from a webpage, you might like Hindi and Urdu Since 1800: a Common Reader and this Digital Urdu Ghazal Reader hosted by the University of Columbia.

If you want to read something more modern, try Naiyer Masud’s award-winning short stories or Mohammad Ilyas’ novels. Farhat Ishtiaq and Umera Ahmad are both prolific romance novelists whose books have been turned into TV shows and audiobooks. Romantic, Islamic Urdu fiction is thriving, with plenty of recommendations and reviews on Goodreads. And if you’re stuck for ideas about what to read, UrduFiction.com can help you find a book.

Urdu TV Shows and Movies

Love drama? You’re in luck: you’ve got plenty to choose from. And while it can depend on your location, several of these are (at the time of writing) on Netflix.

In Churails, four women band together to expose cheating husbands. It’s been hailed as a groundbreaking drama of exceptionally high quality.

Udaari tells the story of a mother and daughter and their love lives. While that might sound lighthearted, this show can be heavy-hitting.

Zindagi Gulzar Hai is a touching, romantic drama that doesn’t shy away from race, class, and gender issues.

Humsafar tells the story of an initially loveless marriage, emphasizing the importance of respect within a relationship.

Looking for less romance, more action? Try Dhuwan, the story of five friends turned vigilantes. Or you might like Ho Mann Jahann, a coming-of-age musical.

News, Music, and Other Resources for Learning Urdu

Listening to Urdu-language music can introduce you to new vocabulary, challenge your listening, and simply get you to spend more hours of the day immersed in Urdu. It’s worth listening to playlists and compilations like this to find artists you like. Alternatively, artists who produce (at least some) songs in Urdu include Atif Aslam, Hadiqa Kiana, Jagjit Singh, Ali Zafar, Qurat-ul-Ain Balouch, and Gulzar.

Meanwhile, reading the news will not only keep you up to date on current affairs but also help you recognize nuance and expand your vocabulary. Just like with the English-language media, it’s worth reading a few different sites until you find one whose editorial angle you like.

For Pakistani news, you could try Urdu News, Daily Pakistan, Daily Khabrain, Jang, or Daily Ausaf. For an Indian perspective, try The Inquilab, The Wire Urdu, or Milap. You might also like BBC News in Urdu.

You’ll likely find yourself reaching for a dictionary as you read these sites. Try Platts Dictionary, hosted by the University of Chicago. It’s also available as an app.

It’s easy to feel dispirited when you set out to study Urdu and discover that it’s not on Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, or many of the other major language-learning platforms. Yet there’s a surprisingly wide range of ways to learn this beautiful language. So, try out some of these apps and courses, start practicing your writing, and get ready to finally speak and write Urdu.

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Comments (1)

Where have you been all my life. So happy read on your website. Ken

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